This is the first Tishrei of my life without my father. And I will confess, even as I approach the end of my period of avelut, that I wasn’t prepared for the strong emotions that would be triggered as we sang the melodies of Rosh Hashanah davening in shul. More than once I found myself shedding tears. And then I found myself wondering why. My father wasn’t a ba’al tefillah, a service leader. I don’t have particular memories of singing the nusach with him, or even, at this point, strong associations of spending the days in shul with him on the High Holidays. Yet there I was in the middle of services, overcome to the point that I needed to find someplace quiet in the building and be by myself. Why?
What finally occurred to me was that I wasn’t so much missing my Dad—though I do—as much as missing a larger sense of enduring childhood, concretized in my parents’ home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was also the home I grew up in and the house they lived in continuously for over 49 years. That ended when my Mom moved to be near us earlier this year. I have been aware of this sense, a kind of phantom limb syndrome, at various points over recent months: when Michigan sporting events have been on TV, or when I might listen to a Tiger game on my phone. In the past, anytime Michigan scored a touchdown or Miguel Cabrera hit a homer, I knew that my Dad was probably watching, and that we would talk about it when I called on Friday before Shabbat. I knew there was life at my parents’ house, and in that assurance, though I was a grown man with a spouse and a mortgage and three children of my own, I felt a kind of tether to a larger sense of childhood. And on Rosh Hashanah this year, as I sat in shul singing, it hit me once again that no one from my family is in Ann Arbor singing anymore, and that childhood part of me, is finally, fully over. That’s what I was really missing.
We typically think of Pesach as our most child-centered holiday, and for good reason. It is in reference to Pesach that the Torah, for the only time I can think of, puts words in the mouth of the child, telling us (adults) that on that day our children will ask us what all this means to us. From that observation/prediction flows the mitzvah of sippur yetziat mitzrayim and the entire order of leil haseder—both because the children will ask and, of course, so that the children will ask.
But the Torah doesn’t put words in the child’s mouth when it comes to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Which leads us to wonder, in this season of teshuva, Where is the voice of the child?
To complicate the question a bit, we should also throw in the fact that, for the purposes of teshuva, selicha,and kapara, it’s really only adults who are the address of these holidays. A child is defined halakhically, much as in secular law, as a type of person who is not a bar-da’at, incapable of making fully rational decisions and therefore not culpable for their actions. That is what makes these holidays so adult-focused. When you take away the excitement of the shofar, the sweetness of the apples and honey, and the basic idea of saying I’m sorry, you’re left with a holiday that’s all about taking responsibility and being accountable for the commitments we’ve failed to live up to—that is, you’ve got an adult holiday. This ain’t kids stuff.
Despite that, I think the voice of the child is present, powerfully so, in two key dimensions of teshuva during these holidays.
The first is that of our own child within, which, the way I felt about Ann Arbor, yearns for a teshuva, a return, to a more innocent time. This voice is the one we invoke when we singAvinu Malkeinu, our Father, our King; when we sing anu vanecha v’ata avinu, we are your children and you are our father. It is the voice of Cain who, having sinned, plaintively tells God gadol avoni minso, my sin is too great to bear. It is the voice of Jeremiah at the end of Lamentations, who cries, hashivenu Adonai elecha v’nashuva chadesh yameinu k’kedem, Return us to you, God, and we will return, renew our days as of old.
This child’s voice is the one that wants to go back to that simpler time, to get past the obstacle of sin, and simply to feel God’s embrace. It is a child’s voice that wants things to be simpler, to know that there is still someone at home. It is the voice in us that wants to hear that whatever we have done, we are forgiven, and that, as our parents told us when they dried our tears years ago, everything really will be all right.
The second child’s voice during this season is a different one. It is the voice of the child that holds up a mirror to us, forcing us to confront our responsibility, our culpability, our adulthood. This is the voice of Ishmael crying, which, though he perhaps cannot hear it physically, we know Abraham hears. It is the voice of Isaac, which the midrash tells us brings Abraham to tears as he struggles through his conflicting impulses of compassion and obedience. It is the voice of Nadav and Avihu, and their brothers Elazar and Itamar, who are undoubtedly in Aaron’s ears as he silently undertakes the Yom Kippur ritual acharei mot shnei bnei Aharon, after their death. It is the voice of Isaiah, challenging us: Is this the fast I want from you? Or, rendered another way, mah ha-avoda hazot lachem? What is all this ritual you’re doing? What is this life you are leading? What is this world you are leaving behind for us?
This second voice is the voice of the child who, precisely because they represent innocence for us, precisely because, in that image of innocence they cannot be responsible for themselves, are our responsibility. In their innocence, our children become the most powerful bearers of tochachathat any of us can hear. Their voices call us to be their examples, to live our lives knowing that someone—they—are watching, taking mental and emotional notes of everything we do. Called to account in the face of our children, we are at our most vulnerable—with the possibility of rising to the challenge or failing them. The stakes could hardly be higher.
In the haftarah for Shabbat Shuva, Hosea counsels us to be good adults. “He who is wise will consider these words, He who is prudent will take note of them,” writes the prophet. “For the paths of the LORD are smooth; The righteous can walk on them, While sinners stumble on them.” But in considering what it means to be righteous, in searching for where the paths of the LORD can be found, I think it may be helpful to reach for the words of Malachi in the haftarah at the other end of the year, on Shabbat Hagadol: “Behold I send before you the prophet Elijah. V’heishiv lev avot al banim v’lev banim el avotam, And he will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.”
We are living in a time when the voices of children are rising up and asking, mah ha-avodah hazot lachem, What is this world you are leaving us? So many of us feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of this question, by the enormity of our individual and collective responsibility. One response to that overwhelm is to seek refuge in our own childhood, to go to our parents, to go to God, and to seek comfort, reassurance that it will all be okay, that we can go back to an earlier time that we remember, or perhaps we simply imagine, was simpler. Chadesh yameinu k’kedem. Our tradition is wise enough to recognize that we need to be able to walk with that kind of assurance.
But our tradition is also wise enough to teach us that we cannot dodge our children’s questions, that we must eventually come to terms with our responsibilities—to them, to ourselves, to God and God’s creation. So as we continue on the journey of teshuva this year, I bless you, as I hope you will bless me, with a wise and listening heart; a heart that can hold the voice of the child within us that needs the reassurance that we can meet the challenges we face; a heart that can hold the voice of the child confronting us who demands of us that rise to what we are capable of being; a heart that can hold these two voices simultaneously, that can break and be made whole again.
Gemar chatima tova.